Towards a United Ireland – Labour’s Policy Document (January 1989)

Comments by Sam H. Boyd.

This document, although more detailed and structured than that advanced at the 1987 Conference fringe meeting, still fails to adequately address the problem. Certainly, one must accept the stark truth that throughout British/Irish history it is only when civil unrest has occurred that the question of how Ireland should be governed has found its way on to the political agenda.
However, too much sentimental claptrap is circulated and spoken and too many romantic illusions are entertained about Ireland’s history. This gets in the way of rational thinking as to how improvements may be affected.
Viewing British involvement in Ireland simply as colonial conquest ignores the political setting and context of its origin and forgets the various and many movements of people which took place before direct intervention from Britain. After all, Dublin has just been celebrating its millennium year having begun as a Viking settlement in 988 nearly 200 years before Henry II landed in Ireland. And as the Chartist revolt is commemorated it should be remembered that two of that movement’s leaders, Brontiere O’Brien and Fergus O’Connor can hardly be classed as Welsh or English. It is well known also that the population mix after many centuries shows that the cultural aspects, particularly of Western and Northern Britain, are not dissimilar to those in Ireland.
It should also be recognised that much of the suffering, deprivation and oppression experienced in Ireland was paralleled contemporaneously in many other parts of Britain. The fact that places like Skibbereen and Western Ireland generally were remote from the centre of government meant that less pressure could be exerted to bring their plight forward for attention during the famine years. That they were Irish may have meant less attention to their difficulties but callous treatment of the poor occurred, and still does, in many parts of the mainland.
To understand the Irish situation two factors have to be borne in mind: (1)The full effects of the Reformation and subsequent secularisation were not felt in Ireland where they clung precariously to the Catholic Church. This, probably because the Protestant Faith was closely linked to English rule, led to the loss of property and other rights.
(2)The industrial revolution did not impact so decisively upon Ireland so again less secularisation took place.
Thus the past, present and future of Ireland, because of historical entwining, can not be divorced from the rest of the British Isles despite the almost seventy years of estrangement between the two islands and the divisions in Ireland. For, when Britain joined the E.E.C., Ireland could not have stayed out and they could not have successfully entered if Britain had not.
Attachment, however, to the idea of Irish unification, the document’s thrust as the central core of Labour’s policy, ignores the effect of 50/68 years of separate Irish governments and the fact that events of the last 20 years have deepened the divisions even more than those extant in 1920.
Anxious as I am, indeed as are many socialists still residing in Northern Ireland, to see some progress I do not believe it is the responsibility of the British Labour Party to the Westminster Parliament to campaign for reunification. For how can such a campaign be carried out, except in Ireland, and the Labour Party has until now refused to organise in Northern Ireland.
The decision to campaign can therefore only be seen as an attempt to generate support from Irish components of the British electorate rather than to influence votes in Northern Ireland unless it is meant to assist the SDLP. Political expediency, hypocrisy or simply lack of understanding of the true nature of the problem could be suggested to describe the decision.
The SDLP is not really a socialist party, whatever devious means they have employed to gain membership of international organisations. It is essentially a Nationalist body appending a Labour tag to gain credence in mainland Britain. They have, in their short history and that of their precursors, engaged in chicanery, duplicity and opportunism to destroy the unified Labour and trade union movement in Northern Ireland. In their pursuit of an outworn sentimental nationalism they have accentuated the polarisation of the Six Counties.
Held at arm’s length by the Labour party in the republic, they have inclined more to Fianna Fáil than to any of the other parties in the Twenty Six Counties. It is indeed surprising to hear them described as a sister party; how can that be so, — they operate within the same state to elect MPs to the same parliament and are not affiliated or federated to the British party. It is really a con trick. Would the Welsh Nationalists who recently re-affirmed their adherence to socialism be accepted in the same way?
It is one thing to aspire to and work for a United Socialist Ireland, but the socialism should take precedence over the unification issue. Time and again the past and present leaders of the SDLP and their various predecessors, when faced with the choice, have put their nationalism and religious affiliation first – without exception. The British Labour Party should not need to be reminded of Gerard Fitt and the demise of the Callaghan government.
The tenor of the policy document suggests that the Party has fallen hook, line and sinker for the SDLP conception of the problem. This is a very grave error for there is no way in which a solution can be obtained without seriously considering the views of the majority Northern population and ways of winning them over once again to socialist aims and policies. The last three lines of clause 4 on page 2 of the statement are not likely to satisfy them as they will perceive these as an intention to force them, willy nilly, into union with the Republic.
Whilst (from a Nationalist viewpoint) it may be logical to argue, as the document says, that history dictates union for the whole island, the Unionists will retort from their perspective of history that union with Britain is equally if not more valid, and of greater economic benefit, than one with the Republic.
This, of course, is the nub of the problem, and to the extent that reform of structures and economic regeneration succeeded in the North in parallel with Britain this could widen the gap between them and the Republic and reinforce the majority’s support for the status quo, and perhaps some of the minority also. It should also be noted that there are much smaller political and economic units functioning throughout the world than the Six Counties of Northern Ireland – Luxembourg in the EEC for instance. Despite possible lower standards, if pressed too hard to join the Republic, they might prefer to declare UDI in Northern Ireland which would give another twist to the downward spiral.
To say that political, economic and social institutions in Northern Ireland must be reformed is true enough, but, as the document itself states, the same process must take place in the Republic. The UK Parliament has jurisdiction in Northern Ireland and can enact changes. Obviously, however, the same writ does not run in the Dáil or Senate. And, of course, there is the problem of whether changes should be determined by the speed at which reciprocal changes take place in the Republic, remembering that their constitution can only be changed by referendum. The process is also affected, as the document does acknowledge, by whether direct rule continues or whether there is an agreed devolved administration for Northern Ireland.
Three years of that singularly useless scrap of paper, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, has signally failed to produce a single bit of political progress. It should be disposed of, as one disposes of toilet paper, for it has done nothing to assist the relief of the long standing constitutional constipation in Ireland – North and South.
During its operation antagonisms have intensified, intransigence increased, dialogue has been obstructed and violence is still ever-present. The present review is likely to be unproductive and it is only to save face that both governments refuse to suspend the Secretariat. I am supported in my assessment as to its ineffectiveness by the call by Dick Spring, the leader of the Irish Labour party, for its suspension to facilitate dialogue in the North.
In framing its policy the British labour Party seems to be unaware that since the 1920 Partition the central argument in labour politics in the North was focused on two viewpoints:

(1) Socialism in ireland could only be advanced by first achieving Reunification.
(2) Reunification would only become possible by striving for socialism in Northern and Southern Ireland.

Following Partition a liaison committee between the Northern and Southern Labour parties functioned until, at the Southern Party’s request, it was discontinued as they felt they could make more progress on their own.
The first [proposition has been pursued down the years by the IRA/Sinn Féin and their variants and espoused latterly by some members of the SDLP. We can see what the dragon’s teeth that they sowed has spawned in the bloody communal strife, savage bombing – destructive, divisive and profoundly unproductive – for which all of them in varying degrees, including the Protestant paramilitaries, bear responsibility.
What was previously latent violence has, by a combination of Nationalist shortsightedness, fundamentalist Protestant obduracy, lack of political acumen among local political leaders and ineptness in their British counterparts, become very largely endemic. Unless we turn again to pursue the second proposition the bloodshed and terror will continue for another twenty years and beyond.
It is extremely important that we do not fall into the trap (as the document appears to do) of espousing unification as the answer, for this by its very nature is the issue upon which the Northern population divides and cannot be the basis of reconciliation within the Six Counties at this moment in history and for some time to come.
Nevertheless the question cannot be shirked entirely for partition has stood in the way of all attempts to develop a unified socialist approach to the problems in Northern Ireland and of shaping a socialist strategy for Ireland as a whole.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement has not allayed and cannot allay the fears of the Northern Ireland majority, who vary from right wing conservatives at one end of the spectrum to left wing socialists at the other, that they may be forced into union with a hierarchy dominated theocratic Republic where change is only possible by referendum. On the other hand the so called Accord (recently looking very shaky) is perceived by many nationalists as a very nebulous promise of unification in a very far off light year future, a recipe destined to produce more of the same as the past twenty bloody years.
What is lacking in Labour’s Policy Document is a firm positive proposal for constitutional machinery by which a decision on unification could be reached, machinery by which it could clearly be established that until acceptable proposals receive majority support the status quo would remain. This of course would have to allow for the fact that the Republic’s constitution can only be changed by referendum and at the same time afford freedom of choice for the Northern population.
The statement is silent and evasive on this crucial question, glibly talking of establishing conditions suitable to effect unification. Suitable to whom — Nationalists or Unionists? How can the latter expect their views to matter when they look at those last three lines in bold print of clause 4 of the policy document. Inclusion of the following suggestions would remedy or at least offset this very serious defect.
A periodic (the period subject to agreement) referendum would be held throughout Ireland on specific constitutional proposals. Assessed separately north and south, each referendum would require more than a simple majority in both before it could be implemented.
Acceptance of this method of deciding the issue of partition / unification would diffuse the party polarisation around the question so that social and economic matters could become more salient for the Northern electorate and facilitate cooperation between them and their Southern party equivalents. Since formulating this approach some time ago I have discovered by research that a similar idea was contained in submissions to the Crowther Commission on the UK constitution in 1970 which lends weight to the suggestion.
Coupled with the above I propose that a devolved Council, Assembly or Administration be set up, elected on the basis of proportional representation, similar to that in West Germany. The province as a whole could be a single constituency or alternatively each of the Six Counties could form a constituency. Voting would be for parties and not individuals and seats allocated on the basis of the percentage of the total vote obtained by each party.
This method would enable existing or reestablished nonsectarian parties to maximise their support, assisted by the fact that the decision on partition/reunification would clearly be by direct vote and not determined by the number of seats each party could obtain in the election as envisaged by the Ireland Act 1949. The majority party or a coalition of parties could form an administrative executive and reserve powers retained at Westminster and unlike the past, exercised when necessary to ensure equality of treatment for all citizens.
The document is right to reject the ‘troops out’ call, for this is nothing less than a washing of hands of the problem and in essence a refusal to accept some responsibility for its creation. This attitude is based on the mistaken view that it is a colonial problem rather than one of maintaining unity within a nation state. Although some elements of colonialism may have been present in the treatment of Ireland the real truth is that it was the failure of British governments to devise structures to accommodate the various strands within the state which brought about the fracture in 1920. Similar strains are now surfacing in Scotland and may emerge in Wales and could well lead, if the lesson is not learnt, to further fissures in the UK.
Although there may be a residual sentimental longing for a United Ireland among the population in the Republic there is no substantial upsurge of support for the immediate inclusion of Northern Ireland within its jurisdiction. They are not yet ready to pay the price in the secularisation of education, wide ranging changes in family law, and downgrading the Catholic Church’s influence upon the legislature required in any new constitution necessary to gain support from the Northern majority. Apart from these serious impediments there are many health, social benefits and organisational disparities which could not easily be resolved even if the will were there.
The issue must be approached within the context of the UK and the imperative is the formation of a dissolved authority in which equality of treatment is paramount. Power sharing is superficially attractive but in my view would be to make the same mistake twice.
This institutionalises sectarianism when what is necessary is its breakdown and the generation of political organisations spanning the religious divide which conform to the pattern existing in the UK and generally in Europe.
The two proposals I have advanced (1) the periodic referendum and (2) the devolved administration on the West German model are designed to that end.
Unless the Party’s policy contains concrete proposals of this character it will be just as meaningless and ineffective as the Anglo-Irish Agreement. we cannot wait for another 3/4 years before a general election makes it possible, if a Labour government is the result, to try out some of the items in ‘Towards a United Ireland’ which in my view is inadequate anyway.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement is clearly politically useless and as I anticipated from its inception has been a stumbling block in the way of progress. The British Government, as Thatcher’s latest outburst on the Ryan extradition cock-up shows, seems to be searching for a way to jettison it, without losing face, and in a way that they can put the blame on the Irish Government.
The Labour Party must come fully out of the government’s shadow and boldly take the initiative to release the log jam, else we will be for ever locked in this grisly dance of death in Northern Ireland.
As set out, the danger in the policy document is that if it were implemented it would lock the sectarian divide into the constitution and structure of the political administration which would then obstruct the way to unification which it says is its central thrust. Whereas, an agreed constitutional formula for periodically voting on the issue would set the task to the electorate in the Republic to design a constitution which would encourage the Northern electorate to favourably consider their overtures.
There are very many formidable psychological religious ethnic economic and administrative barriers to unification. Although one can well understand the impatience of British politicians to be rid of the problem the document falls short of what is required. The two suggestions I have made are not inimical to it, but by recognising by their inclusion the outlook and fears of the majority Northern population would strengthen support for it. They are essential ingredients if the party is to generate support for a negotiated settlement in Britain and Ireland that is fair to both communities.
Furthermore, the Parliamentary Labour Party should initiate a debate in the Commons, outlining positive proposals which offer an alternative to the Government’s preoccupation with security rather than the more im[portant need to make political progress.
It has long been recognised that there is a need to provide another more civilised way to achieve unification so as to detach support from Nationalist paramilitaries. It is just as necessary to detach Unionists from their paramilitaries. I would argue that the proposal that the issue will periodically be decided by direct vote should be acceptable as a compromise to reasonable people in both camps. This should be accepted unequivocally by the parties and government in the Republic thereby setting aside that part of their constitution which lays claim to jurisdiction over the whole island, without necessarily having a referendum on it.
We are in a sense back to square 2 in Ireland, 1920 and the immediate following years, although the years of separate government since then cannot be overlooked. This fact must be faced and the mistakes they have made recognised by Nationalists and Unionists alike. Provisions in the Treaty for reviewing its operation were not effected so it is necessary to reestablish these along the lines I have suggested.
History is not suitable for imbibing in voluminous quantities, wallowing in its mistakes and tragedies, and – in mind sodden intoxication – refighting the battles of the past. As a non drinking, non religious socialist political activist over nearly sixty years, a student of history and a native of Belfast, I prefer to analyse the contents of the bottle, test for specificity, extract the poisonous element and offer a health-giving liquid as an acceptable solution.
Neither the Hume brew, nor the Adams ale nor the Paisley vintage beverage is acceptable or suitable for electoral consumption.
I believe that my approach is constructive and objective and I trust the authors of the document and the Party generally will find it palatable and be prepared to ingest it.

Copies to:

Neil Kinnock, Kevin McNamara, Paul Murphy, Jim Marshal, Peter Archer, Marjorie Mowlam, Claire Short, Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, January 1989.

Samuel H. Boyd

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